diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 01, 2016

We fret these days over building on the Green Belt, but if done well, would it be so bad? The catch, of course, is that housing is so infrequently done well.

One place that bucked the trend is New Ash Green, a pioneering postwar village in northwest Kent. Its masterplan was devised by domestic architect Eric Lyons of SPAN Developments, who aimed to build ‘a lush green urbanism - the Verdant Village’ on the site of two hilltop farms. Residents would live in one of twenty-four neighbourhoods, each with a separate Twentieth Century design, arranged around a shopping parade and community facilities. All houses would face onto a communal greenspace, with cars banished out of sight, and with a network of footpaths threading through to make connections. Less than half of the 429 acres would be built upon, to enhance desirability, and an ultimate population of about 6000 was envisaged. [neighbourhood map]

Planning permission was initially refused, but a change of government brought a change of heart, and the first residents moved in in 1967. The ensuing economic downturn brought an end to SPAN's best endeavours after only a minority of the neighbourhoods had been completed, so the remainder was completed (to lesser specification) by other builders such as Bovis. But the dream lived on and today New Ash Green is a delightful place to live, or at least it appeared that way when I popped down to take a look.

All the necessary shared facilities were placed in the village centre, with various health services and the library occupying separate buildings across from the main car park. For retail needs a two-storey dogleg of shops was laid out, called The Row, beneath a clocktower now disfigured by phone masts (and whose clockface is impractically difficult to see). The Co-Op is still well frequented, the bookshop has diversified into partygear, and whoever decided to call the tanning salon Ashtan should perhaps have thought things through. Upstairs there's a gym, round the corner a pub called The Badger, and on the green (called the Minnis) a somewhat angular village hall. Indeed walking around New Ash Green it swiftly becomes evident how much SPAN's architects loved a steeply-pitched roof, like a thick wedge of brick cheese atop every building, as if this were their signature flourish.

The first few neighbourhoods, closest to the centre, stand out with a Modernist touch. The houses in Over Minnis and Punch Croft (they're great, these names) showcase sheer brick and tile, with slatted timber porches added geometrically at the front. Across the way in Lambardes the houses are larger, specifically wider with deep ground floor windows and an almost luxurious bulge. It's easy to walk past and imagine these residents living in a Sixties timewarp, and the once-futuristic furniture visible inside some suggests this may indeed be the case.

A typical New Ash Green neighbourhood contains around 100 houses arranged in brief irregular terraces, quite densely packed but still with a wealth of greenery all around. Shared lawns are immaculately tended, and somewhere there must be a crack team of landscape contractors providing the shrubbery with everyday loving care. The rural illusion is aided by shielding all vehicles around the back, with parking circles and garages accessed via a separate network of cul-de-sacs, each linked via alleyways to the verdant frontage. In sharp contrast to any modern estate no footpath is a dead end, they always lead somewhere further than a row of front doors, and this inbuilt permeability helps to mesh the community together.

One of the most obvious unifying factors at New Ash Green is a common typeface. It couldn't be more of its era if it tried, with rounded elongated letters individually attached to signs and gateposts, and occasionally flaking off. Originally every house must have had an identical oblong lamp outside its front door, with house number centrally stencilled, but only a few of these remain. Instead the majority of residents have chosen to express some individuality with a replacement lamp and a replacement plate, which I suspect the original architects wouldn't have appreciated. But everyone still has a white door and white window frames, because that's in the regulations, and each cluster of garage doors is painted an officially designated colour, be that green, blue, cream or whatever.

As you move away from the initial neighbourhoods it's possible to discern how the initial SPAN dream slowly faded. Many of the early Bovis-built sectors maintain the same green-faced groupings, though with less architecturally adventurous stock. Over on the western edge, The Mead features broader detached houses and feels like middle class infill, while Seven Acres to the south could be any generic suburban estate, with cars parked on front drives and a notable absence of interconnecting footpaths. But Redhill Wood at the eastern extreme is as planned, a low-density self-build neighbourhood across forested slopes, scarcely visible from the hilltop opposite.

I don't necessarily recommend a 90 minute wander, there are Neighbourhood Watch signs everywhere, and to meander endlessly between terraces, garages and lawns can feel like an intrusion. But equally I was surprised by how few people I met or passed, given the interconnectedness of the estates and their properties. This even stretched to the roads where, despite this being a multi-vehicle community, almost all were parked up and the only sound of revving engines came from Brands Hatch race circuit across neighbouring fields. The most unlikely absence was children, because New Ash Green provides almost textbook conditions for playing safely outside, but hardly any were doing so. Were they all inside, or elsewhere, or is this simply what happens four decades after a bulge of young families moves in?

For more on New Ash Green check out this excellent website about SPAN, its architects, or delve around the comprehensive information provided by the Village Association. Chapter 6 of Part 2 of Concretopia, which is probably on your bookshelf, explores the everyday foibles of this model village, or if you have 15 minutes to spare settle back and watch this promotional film called The Village on The Hill. It's from the 1980s and it shows, and the focus is more on social activities than architecture, but you'll soon get a good idea of what life was like in this most atypical Kentish community. If you do choose to visit, head to Longfield station (two stops past Swanley) followed by a long walk or short bus ride, or just drive like everybody else, and admire.

My New Ash Green gallery
There are 24 photos altogether [slideshow]

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